An echoing silence in his wake


The death of Neil Postman this week, at age 72, brings a certain quiet into public discourse. A literate critic, a conscientious objector, a naysayer to unbridled development is silent. As well, a great teacher, a wonderfully clear writer and a very nice and at times self-mocking man is dead.

Neil Postman

We met in the backstage area of the auditorium of the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto. It was the mid-nineties and he was speaking about Technopoly, his latest book, and his sense that technology was too little understood, too much hyped and too dangerous to let loose without thought. The capacity crowd could be divided into two. Those who wanted to talk about TV, education and culture in an admiring way, in a pleading way; as if this guru from New York had all the answers about how to fix schools, how to stop their children from watching too much television, how to make sense of rapid change. The other half of the audience was there to challenge, dispute, argue about his ideas; to demonstrate that he was wrong, out of date, a Luddite in a suit just off a plane using modern communication techniques to argue a defeatist position against the very things that made him famous. He dealt with the challenges and the adoration in the same manner. He simply asked questions.

I was a producer at the CBC Radio program Morningside with Peter Gzowski and I had an audacious question. I wanted him to be the technology columnist on Morningside. In response, we talked about Casablanca, one of his favourite films. When he recited the line, a favourite quote I came to understand, "This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," I knew we had a deal.

Postman and Gzowski were meant for each other. Both men loved wrestling with the implications of developments and trends. And they both loved the fax machine. It was a simple means for exchanging information at the time of convenience of the person sending it and the person receiving it.

The usual simplistic critique of Postman is that he was a technophobe. It's true that he had written harsh and condemnatory prose about television, automobiles, computers, voice mail and dozens of other technical changes, but it was never with a lack of appreciation of what the technology in question could do. It was more often because he had asked the basic questions of himself that he had argued we should all ask: What is the problem this technology is to solve? Whose problem is it exactly? And if this technological solution solves a legitimate problem, what other problems will this technology create? When he asked the questions about the fax machine, he came down on the side of using it.

Not so with voice mail. He didn't understand why messages had to be transmitted that way and with the implicit sense of urgency the mechanical voice and blinking lights created. When you called his office at New York University, where he had taught for 39 years, and he wasn't in, the recorded voice informed you that New York University had an automatic phone-answering service and that Professor Neil Postman didn't use it. It was almost worth missing him in the office to hear the reminder that all technology didn't need to be universal. It was a small reminder of the questions he demanded that you ask if you were to retain your citizenship in the world of humanity.

Questions were what Postman was about. If you look back over his amazing career — his award-winning teaching, his 20 books, his 200 articles in some of the great publications of our age, his thousands of public appearances and lectures — you find at the core of everything he did a series of questions. A perspective on the world that demanded attention to what happened and what mattered. Why is this happening, who benefits, what if it didn't happen, who pays — these were just a few of the questions he asked about everything. He didn't just ask it of cellphones or cruise control. He wanted you to think about how the alphabet changed oral cultures, what the printing press did to religion, how education created childhood, why testing for standards meant the radical rethinking of the school system.

He thought if we asked questions, demanded answers, insisted on forethought, then we'd be less impressed by the claims of technology, the promise of progress. In books such as Technopoly, he tried to make us all appreciate that all change comes first with a promise of benefit and a silence about costs. Regardless of his own personal opinions, he felt it imperative that we take note that nothing is done without a cost and that if change were to happen, let it happen with our eyes wide open.

He kept his own eyes wide open. He was a teacher who raised real issues about education. In books such as The Disappearance of Childhood, Teaching as a Conserving Activity and his classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity, he made us wonder about schools, their curriculums, their purpose and their meaning. And his own conclusions were an invitation, an insistence that we figure out some of this ourselves. He once argued that education should be about making us less stupid, not more intelligent. Sheer data and trivia were major problems for him in the past 20 years. You see it emerge in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, a devastating critique of television published in 1985. But as with much of what he wrote, the prescience and acuity grew over time. As all media began to resemble his harshest vision of television — a world where, he observed, the only thing people remembered one day to the next was the weather report because it was useful — his critique itself expanded. We were not just amusing ourselves to death, we were drowning in an information tidal wave.

He was very aware of what the critic's role was in society. He was not shy about popping up in schools, on TV, or on-line, simply because it made sense to talk with people where they were. When asked whether he had thoughts about the value of a new means of communicating, he just observed that he wasn't the best person to ask about the good that might flow. There were a lot of very skilled people who could do that; he concentrated on dealing with the less popular side of things.

Ultimately, Postman understood that just as promoters of technology could exaggerate the up side, opponents could exaggerate the downside. In his last book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, he wanted to make clear that the problems we face are no more "stunning, disorienting or complex than those we faced in the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries." It wasn't the problems that mattered so much as it was how we approached them.

Over the years, after the Morningside series had ended, Neil Postman and I would talk occasionally, usually upon the publication of a new book or essay. And every time, I'd come away with more questions than answers. He was right, it was a beautiful friendship.

The late Neil Postman was the author of: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business; Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology; The Disappearance of Childhood; and The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School.




Peter Kavanagh, "An echoing silence in his wake." The Globe and Mail, (Canada) 11 October, 2003.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Peter Kavanagh.


Peter Kavanagh is a senior producer with CBC Radio's Current Affairs.

Copyright © 2003 The Globe and Mail

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